I did a webinar for IndustryWeek late in 2012 titled “How To Implement Lean Manufacturing -- And Virtually Guarantee Failure.” Many who watched my webinar were surprised when I stated that the most common cause of failure has more to do with the existing weaknesses businesses have in their own management systems rather than issues brought about by implementing the new items that represent the difference between their existing system and elements of a lean manufacturing system.

Many lean implementations have failed and many are failing, if not in whole at least in part -- I state that axiomatically. So if yours is a complete failure, a partial failure or if you are just struggling as you go, I will discuss what I have found to be the most common reason for those struggles. In fact, with my client base and survey data I have gathered from other lean professionals, I find that a full 95% of all implementations suffer greatly from this malady!

What is this weakness?

The secret is this: Most facilities that fail in a lean implementation have failed to create stable process flow. And by stable I mean statistically stable -- a process that is predictable. In simple terms, Dr. W. Edward Deming would have said that you analyze the process and first make it free of assignable causes.

Why is this problem so prevalent?

I find that many companies that wish to implement a lean initiative lack the experience and knowledge necessary. Consequently, they go to the literature to find ways to implement lean in their facility. In my opinion, the real expert writings on the Toyota Production System (TPS) have come from Taiichi Ohno. Second -- but a distant second -- is Shigeo Shingo. So when someone says the TPS is “this or that,” I refer to their writings to sort the wheat from the chaff. Why these two?

  • First and foremost, they were involved in creating the TPS. They created it organically, building system upon system -- based on need. In fact, Ohno specifically said, “The Toyota production system, with its two pillars advocating the absolute elimination of waste, was born in Japan out of necessity. Today, in an era of slow economic growth worldwide, this production system represents a concept in management that will work for any type of business.” (Taiichi Ohno. “Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production”)
  • Second, they were there -- on the floor; experimenting, trying, succeeding, failing and trying again. They gained their knowledge by experimentation combined with deep thought and reflection around clear objectives. The TPS is functionally impossible to learn simply by reading about it and studying it. A mantra of mine is that you learn by doing. Vicarious learning is simply not adequate.
  • Third, Ohno in particular recognized that although it was the Toyota Production System, it was also a management system. Note his comment “this production system represents a concept in management that will work for any type of business.”
  • Fourth, they succeeded.